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Google Loses Copyright Case In Belgium

A court ruled that Google violated the law by publishing copyrighted content without permission on Google News and ordered the infringing articles, pictures, and links removed.

A court in Belgium ruled Tuesday that Google violated the law by publishing copyrighted content without permission on Google News and ordered the infringing articles, pictures, and links removed.

Google expressed disappointment with the judgment and promised to appeal.

"We believe that Google News is entirely legal," a company spokesperson says. "We only ever show the headlines and a few snippets of text and small thumbnail images. If people want to read the entire story they have to click through to the newspaper's Web site. Search tools such as Google Web Search and Google News are of real benefit to publishers because they drive valuable traffic to their Web sites and connect them to a wider global audience."

Google may have a point: According to statistics provided by Amazon's, Le Soir and La Derniere Heure -- two of the Belgian papers represented by Copiepresse, the group of 18 French- and German-language publications that brought the suit early in 2006 -- show a slight decline in traffic over the past year.

It's not clear, however, whether the drop in traffic is coincidental or is the result of efforts by Google to remove the disputed content and make it unavailable to searchers.

Copiepresse told Le Soir that it expected the ruling would have significant international impact because the Belgian legislation in question corresponds to broader European rights. Google could thus face similar claims in other E.U. countries. Copiepresse already has indicated that it might pursue similar cases against Microsoft and Yahoo.

The decision represents a setback for Google and its ambitions to expand information access. "I think it's a serious wake-up call to Google that says you've got a very aggressive approach to copyright," says Lee Carl Bromberg, co-founder of Bromberg & Sunstein, a law firm specializing in intellectual property issues. "This is a significant ruling against them saying not only have you gone too far, but it's going to cost you."

The ruling will cost Google, though less than the initial proposed penalty of 1 million ($1.3 million) per day. The court reduced a retroactive daily fine imposed for noncompliance last September to 25,000 ($32,470) per day. Google says it complied with the order that same month, but Copiepresse claims infringing material was still available through Google three weeks ago. Bernard Magrez, a lawyer for Copiepresse, estimates that Google is currently liable for 3 million ($3.9 million), down from 130 million ($168.84 million), according to Le Soir.

More broadly, the ruling may send the message to other potential litigants that Google's dominance online doesn't carry over into court. Even though the decision in Belgium isn't binding in the United States, Bromberg says, "I wouldn't be surprised to see people fighting Google elsewhere cite the decision in their legal briefs."

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